Being Female in Kenya

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By Wanjiru Kariuki
Photos by Nyamu Wanyoike

Editor’s Note: It’s been said that by learning of other people’s experiences, you expand your own. So we’re connecting with women across the globe to hear their thoughts about womanhood where they live. Writer Wanjiru Kariuki sat down with five women in Nairobi, Kenya and asked them one question: What does it mean to be a woman in Kenya to you? Quotes edited for clarity.

Located on the east coast of Africa, Kenya is a culturally vibrant, warm and physically beautiful nation with over 40 million people–most of whom are under the age of 30. Its capital city, Nairobi, is a rapidly developing metropolis, bursting with creativity and dynamism. Like most capital cities, it has pockets of glamour and pockets of seediness. It’s a wonderful place, and it’s also my home.

When I embarked on this project, there was only one thing I knew for certain; the experience of a woman in Kenya is far from monolithic. Kenya is an extremely diverse country and the role of a woman in our society has evolved to mean different things to different people. However, what came out of these conversations in Nairobi was eye-opening. Each woman’s perspective, experiences and approach to the question differed. The conversations also often went on longer than I had anticipated, which suggests that perhaps there is more of this conversation to be had. Here I’ve tried to capture snapshots of the five conversations that took place with these young, remarkable, Nairobi women.

MelissaKiplagat-being-female-in-kenya
Melissa Kiplagat, Actress
I feel pretty powerful as a woman in Kenya

I feel a lot more powerful as a woman in Kenya [than I did when I lived in the states]. There is a lot less objectification and an expectation for me to sexualise myself. Being a woman here means so much more than your body or sexuality. The idea of being a mother, the idea of being a good wife, having a home and having a career is so much more important and is emphasised a lot more. I feel pretty powerful as a woman in Kenya.

This idea of feminism in the West is we have to be able to do what men can do equally. But what does that say about what women do? That our roles aren’t that powerful or as powerful as men’s roles? That we have to do what men do in order to be equal rather than finding the power in what women do and having men respect what we as women do? To me that’s feminism. And I feel that a lot more here than I do in the West.

Being a woman here means so much more than your body or sexuality. #BeingFemaleInKenya Click To Tweet
SinittaAkello_being-female-in-kenya
Sinitta Akello, Make-up Artist and Founder of Culturedego.com
Being a woman in Nairobi has really progressed from what it was before.

Kenya is quite fast-moving but there are still some things that happen that make you feel… ‘woah.’ I think it’s tough because there are instances where people maybe don’t listen to you because you’re a woman… Men, for me in particular, they take confidence as arrogance just because it’s a woman… if a man spoke in the same way, they would be like, “he’s a boss” but as a woman you come across as arrogant. …[But] a lot of women in Kenya are doing their thing. You’ve got a lot of people in the arts, a lot of women that own businesses.

I know there are people that feel that pressure to settle down and have kids, but I don’t feel that pressure. I probably would feel it in Uganda [where I am from] because it’s very traditional. But I feel more pressure here to make it in my career… I feel like 30 years ago that wouldn’t have been a thought in my head. Maybe it’s worth me having a conversation with my mum… [I feel like] being a woman in Nairobi has really progressed from what it was before.

I know there are people that feel that pressure to settle down and have kids, but I don’t. #BeingFemaleInKenya Click To Tweet
TerryJonyo_being-female-in-kenya
Terry Jonyo, Fashion Designer
It’s hard to date in Kenya.

Being a woman in Kenya now there is a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of pressure to have way too much, way too soon, before you’re even ready. For example, when you see socialites in range rovers, and you see people celebrating and idolising them, even though they got these things in a questionable manner… it makes you feel like you’re late in achieving the things you were meant to achieve… I also feel that it’s very hard to date in Kenya, unless you’re looking for a short-term thing. The type of qualities that I am looking for now are different from five years ago… I’m looking for something solid and for someone who will appreciate everything that comes with dating me… It’s hard to date in Kenya.

There’s a lot of pressure to have way too much, way too soon. #BeingFemaleInKenya Click To Tweet
MishiKhalid_being-female-in-kenya
Mishi Khalid, Journalist and Founder of Untold Lives of Women
I don’t want [women] to feel trapped.

Women right now aren’t helping each other. Women all around us want to be better than you, they want to compete with you. We haven’t gotten to a place where we can sit down and analyse things. Because at the end of the day, whatever I have gone through, other women have gone through. And we are all women. If we could all put energy together and all say: I’ve gone through this, and I don’t want another woman to go through this… Lets’ put our brains together and come up with a solution and help each other. Some of the situations that women are going through and are hiding behind–being beaten, raped–some of these situations wouldn’t be there.

For me, I write my blog because I don’t want another woman to be in a situation where she is helpless. I don’t want her to feel trapped.

I’ve gone through this; I don’t want another woman to go through this... #BeingFemaleInKenya Click To Tweet
KuiMbugua_being-female-in-kenya
Kui Mbugua, Consultant
A Kenyan woman is a very strong woman.

Being a woman in Kenya means seizing the day. You run towards opportunity full speed and you embrace everything that comes with the opportunities that you get. Secondly, it means being a solid base for the community that is built around you. Women are the heart of the home and so you need a little bit of thought-leadership and emotional intelligence so that you can navigate through all these people that have some type of reliance on you… A Kenyan woman is a very strong woman, she is always dealing with micro-aggression for example, in the form of workplace sexism that is really subtle and understated. You’re expected to not be very aggressive, even though you’re ambitious. So you have to balance it right. You have to be perceived as very hardworking, very diligent, quiet. Yet when Kenyan men [act in the same way] it’s an admirable thing, it earns them wives in waiting!

#BeingFemaleInKenya means seizing the day. You run towards opportunity full speed... Click To Tweet

I’ve seen [my mum] balance a lot. I have a much younger brother so she balanced raising him, doing her masters, running her businesses and having a full time job. To me that’s inherently the Kenyan woman; they always have three or four grinds and yet they still have time for a social life, they still have time to attend all these family functions and support their families.

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The world’s our oyster. Where should we ‘visit’ next? Leave suggestions in the comments.

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